automatically process and post online. This was
surprisingly difficult for many: “I was amazed
at how people who sent me files couldn’t follow
even the simple rules. I was three pattern documents into this thing, and getting pretty tired
of it already. So I made a form for submitting
the documents.” [ 8] This user-editable repository
would come to be known as the Portland Pattern
Repository—and the first wiki. In a sense, wiki
captures the original conception of the World
Wide Web as both a browsing and editing medium, the latter capability largely forgotten. Wiki
makes this possible by placing a simple editor
within a Web-page form, and the functionality of
formatting and linking is carried out by the wiki
server. Any browser can now edit.
In early January 2001, there was an increasing
frustration associated with Nupedia productivity. The need to publish more articles, as well as a
greater popular interest in contributing, was not
well matched by the expert-dependent multistep
editorial process. Hence, the stage was set for the
introduction of a wiki. On January 2, Sanger had
lunch with Ben Kovitz, a friend from Internet philosophy lists, during which Kovitz introduced the
idea of wikis to Sanger. Sanger immediately saw
this as a possible remedy to Nupedia’s problems,
permitting wider uncredentialed contribution and
collaboration on articles that would then be fed
to Nupedia’s credentialed editorial review. Within
a day, Sanger proposed the idea to Wales, and
Nupedia’s wiki was announced on January 10 in a
message entitled, “Let’s make a Wiki”:
Since its start, Wikipedia’s growth has been
extraordinary. Within six months Sanger
announced that “the Wikipedia is now useful.”
In September 2001 he proclaimed on Usenet:
“Interpedia is dead—long live the Wikipedia….
Interpedia’s noble dream of creating a free, open
encyclopedia lives on—not quite in the form
imagined, but in a ‘very’ open and free form with
which many early participants would probably
approve.” [ 11] Wikipedia proved to be so successful that when the server hosting Nupedia
crashed in September 2003 (with little more than
24 complete articles and 74 more in progress) it
was never restored [ 12]. Yet Sanger continued to
be committed to an authoritative expert-driven
reference work and was never fully reconciled
with Wikipedia’s radical openness and explosive growth. Then, with the burst of the Internet
bubble, Sanger, like many others in the industry,
was laid off (from Bomis); he resigned from his
Wikipedia role shortly thereafter. Still, he continued to comment, criticize, and eventually
compete with a new expert-friendly wiki project,
Citizendium. The English version of Wikipedia now
exceeds two million articles, having long ago subsumed most of the original Nupedia content. The
Wikimedia Foundation, incorporated in 2003, is
now the steward of Wikipedias in many languages,
a wiki based dictionary, a compendium of quotations, collaborative textbooks, a repository of free
source texts, and a collection of images that can be
used by other Wikimedia projects.
Considering these remarkable resources and the
long and dogged pursuit of the universal encyclopedic vision, Wikipedia’s emergence seems inevitable.
But when one looks more closely at the history, at
the unfortunate neutering of the Web by the browser, at the productive laziness prompting the creation
of the wiki, at chance emails and lunch conversations, it can equally be seen as a happy accident.
[ 8] Cunningham, W.
the Etymology of Wiki.”
Nov. 2003. Cunningham
& Cunningham, Inc.
2005. 4 Oct. 2008.
[ 9] Sanger, L..
“Let’s Make a Wiki.”
Mailing list. 10 Jan.
2001. Nupedia-L. 15
Nov. 2005. <http://
[ 10] “History of
8 Jan. 2009. <http://
No, this is not an indecent proposal. It’s an idea to add a
little feature to Nupedia. Jimmy Wales thinks that many
people might find the idea objectionable, but I think not.
As to Nupedia’s use of a wiki, this is the ULTIMATE
“open” and simple format for developing content. We have
occasionally bandied about ideas for simpler, more open
projects to either replace or supplement Nupedia. It seems
to me wikis can be implemented practically instantly,
need very little maintenance, and in general are very low-risk. They’re also a potentially great source for content [ 9].
[ 11] Sanger, L.
“Wikipedia Is Now
Useful!” Wikipedia. 26
June 2001. <http://
and “Interpedia Is
Group. 23 Sept. 2001.
interpedia. 3 Nov. 2005.
However, Wales was right: Nupedia contributors did resist Nupedia being associated with a
website in the wiki format. Therefore, the new
project was given the name “Wikipedia” and
launched on its own address, Wikipedia.com, on
January 15, 2001 [ 10].
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Joseph Reagle is an
adjunct professor at NYU’s Department of Media,
Culture, and Communication where he studies collaborative cultures. As a former research engineer at
MIT’s Lab for Computer Science he served as a
Working Group Chair and author within IETF and
W3C on topics including digital security, privacy, and Internet policy.
A book, based on his dissertation, about Wikipedia collaboration
should be available in 2009.
[ 12] “Nupedia.”
Wikipedia. 21 Dec.
May + June 2009
© 2009 ACM 1072-5220/09/0500 $5.00